What have journalists learned since 2006?

Here is something I wrote in 2006 with Heshem Melhem

The Mohammed Cartoons Controversy

(Written in 2006)
By Stephen Franklin and Hesham Melhem

Out of the global arc of violence and death stirred by a Danish newspaper’s cartoons about the prophet Muhammad, came some glimmers of hope.

Against a stream of anti-Western fury, a small handful of the Arab world’s news media chose logic over delusion and hatred.

In turn, the U.S. publications that do the heavy lifting for Arab and Muslim world coverage, struggled to understand the story and finally got it right, albeit a slower than hoped.

They presented a world of passions and diverse players far more complex than most stereotypes, offering up a different reality than the one that first flashed around the world.

This is no small matter considering how the U.S. and Arab news media have covered such crises, and the divide between the Arab world and the West that widens daily with every little flare-up.

For the U.S. news media, the improved reporting clearly is a mark of the lessons learned since the 9/11 tragedies. Prior to the terrorists’ attacks on U.S. soil, the potent forces boiling in the Arab and Muslim worlds mostly got a brief once over, if any notice at all. So, too, the world of 1.2-billion Muslims seemed as flat as a desert’s horizon.

But the attacks and ensuing crises in Europe and Iraq and across the Muslim world led to a greater commitment to cover places and issues that had gone unexplored before. The situation also created a cadre of editors and reporters savvy enough to separate the anti-Western rant of a Muslim hard-liner from that of a moderate Muslim struggling amid tremendous social pressures.

In the case of the Arab news media, the growth of Pan-Arab satellite television stations has opened Arabs’ eyes to the world around them. And as the stations have proliferated, competition has improved the product. There’s debate. There are voices never heard before. It is not what it could be. But there’s change, which didn’t exist not so long ago.

This has had a spillover effect on the print media, which still largely talks to the Arab world elite in a self-censored voice meant not to ruffle rulers’ sensitivities. Thanks to the explosion of the Internet and television in the Arab world, newspapers have had to compete, and become relevant.

And so, the incident in Denmark was a perfect test of how far the U.S. and Arab world news media had come.

Last fall (September 2005) the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a series of cartoons showing the prophet Muhammad in various situations. One showed a bomb in his turban.

To the small Danish newspaper, the cartoons were part of a story about self-censorship and nothing more. Not so, said a group of Danish Muslims who refused to let the incident pass and doggedly pursued a protest campaign that would eventually touch most parts of the Muslim world.

Passed like a torch, the issue ignited waves of death and destruction from Asia to Africa, morphed into other Muslim- world furies, and became proof to some that the most serious problem of our time is the clash of the Muslim and non- Muslim worlds.

But except for a rare article last fall, the U.S. news media barely paid attention to what was stirring in Denmark.

At the time, Loren Jenkins, senior foreign editor for National Public Radio, remembers thinking Denmark seemed a strange venue for such a controversy, and that it was probably “one, more little manifestation” of the unease rippling through the Arab and Muslim world.

Many editors in the U.S. apparently felt likewise.

Indeed, it wasn’t an easy story for the U.S. news media. Events leapt from country to country and continent-to- continent, occurred in places typically closed to Western journalists, and swept up Muslims, who did not rush to the streets to speak out.

Ultimately, however, the U.S. news media figured out what was happening, piecing together the story part by part. It was not just a sudden outburst of rage. There were other forces at work. As a front-page article in Washington Post on Feb. 16 described it, the situation had become a “quintessentially 21st-century battle, a conflict stepped in decades, even centuries of grievances, reshaped by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and their aftermath.”

The well-thought out 3,897-world article written by Anthony Shadid and Kevin Sullivan with support from others, explained the roles played by a range of characters from hard-line activists to Muslim world political leaders eager to stoke angers to moderates snarled in the enveloping din. In comparison, only a few Arab journalists framed the issue in the way that many of their counterparts in Europe and the U.S. did: as one of freedom of expression and a rejection of imposed taboos. Few dared to point out that there are far more reasons for justified outrage against real ‘Western’ infractions such as the fate of those kept in limbo at the Guantanamo prison.

Fewer still reminded their readers and viewers, not to mention their rulers, that in the main Arabs are responsible for the horrific daily harvest of death in places like Darfur and Iraq, and that these real tragedies, more than 12 cartoons in a newspaper they have never heard of, in a small European country, deserve their attention and compassion.
The bulk of the Arab media’s coverage of the controversy underscored the fact that many Arab journalists and commentators see their role as the defenders of what is sacred in their world.

This is especially true at a time when they feel vulnerable to an assertive West led by a White House that they consider omniscient and omnipresent and bent on determining their future in places like Iraq and Palestine.

The fact that Arabs like others, engage in cultural and political double standards, was lost in the coverage. There was not much anger or a sense of loss in the Arab World or the Muslim World when the two great statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban, and very little outrage over anti Jewish cartoons in some Arab newspapers and negative portrayal of Jews on some Arab television stations, not to mention attacks on Christian churches and worshipers in Egypt and Iraq, or attacks on Christians and Shia’s in Pakistan.

The same Arab governments that criticized the Danish government for its refusal to intervene or punish Jyllands- Posten in the name of free expression are very quick to claim the same when their media at times engages in anti- Jewish bashing.

It is true that Arab coverage of the controversy swung like a rickety pendulum, but there was at least another other side for Arabs to consider.

And so, there was thoughtful commentary, which mostly appeared in print in Asharq Alawsat and Al Hayat, the two large Saudi-owned Pan-Arab newspapers. And, on the other hand, there were shrill denunciations, which bordered on incitement. One was an incendiary call for a ‘day of rage’ from Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi. The powerful Muslim preacher known for his fiery oratory has his own program on al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television station.

Most of the coverage of the controversy in Arab media was based on combined dispatches from various Western wire services with little original reporting, since most Arab media outlets have no correspondents in Northern Europe. This was also true for the coverage of the demonstrations Asia and Africa.

The mostly negative role of Muslim Danish leaders, who mobilized Arab leaders and audiences against the Danish newspaper and government during their visits to the region was covered uncritically in the Arab world. Still, there were a few exceptions such as AlArabiya.net, which pointed out the discrepancies in the Muslim Danish leaders’ statements to Western and Arab media.

For most Arab readers and viewers, the controversy was framed by a small group of commentators, pundits and Islamists, with varying degrees of sophistication and seriousness, as well as an assortment of ‘professional anti- Western’ pamphleteers.
Many commentators echoed their governments’ anger and outrage, and saw in the cartoons a new cultural ‘crusade’ in tandem with the actual military crusade in Iraq. A headline in The Peninsula in Qatar shrieked ‘Europe joins Crusade’. The ‘crusade’ charge was a favorite on some of al-Jazeera’s talk shows where the Danish cartoons were seen as an integral part of a wider, sinister Western attack against Arabs and Muslims.

A chorus of government and media personalities belted out the ready to use canards about a ‘Clash of civilizations’ or ‘biased’ European media or a ‘conspiracy against Islam’. Often these concepts or buzzwords were used interchangeably. A Syrian writer living in Sweden wrote in the Assafir newspaper in Lebanon that Denmark is not only waging war against the Iraqi people, but its laws promulgate that the blood of an Iraqi is worth only few hundred dollars.

Islamist and Arab nationalist commentators, who rarely agree on anything other than finding U.S. or Zionist conspiracies behind every problem in the Arab World, had a field day. Fahmi Huweidi an Egyptian Islamist commentator in Asharq Al-Awsat wrote a column titled, ‘The lessons from the European campaign against the prophet of Islam.’

Denmark, he wrote, is the one is responsible for the burning of its embassies. He played down the apology of the Danish newspaper, criticized the timid official Arab and Muslim response, encouraged the use of the ‘weapon’ of economic boycott and asserted that the ‘confrontation’ showed that the Muslims have many cards to win any such battle.

He went as far as saying that since the crisis has deepened the rift between Muslims and Europeans, some are seeing “cunning Zionist and American fingers in this scene…to lessen hostility towards the Americans and to pre-occupy Muslims with their ‘battle’ against Europe, so that they would not focus on American practices in Iraq.”

Not to be outdone, Buthaina Shaaban a Syrian government official and a regular commentator in Asharq Al-Awsat accused the West of waging a ‘new Holocaust’ against Islam. She saw in the Danish cartoons another manifestation of a continuing real crusade in the West against Islam that began after the September 2001 attacks which is ” becoming with each passing day a new holocaust committed by new European Nazi forces in the 21st century”.

European Muslims are treated today, she wrote, the way Jews were in the 1930’s, and Muslims in America and Europe are facing a ‘racist campaign’ to adopt Christian names in order to dilute their identity.

In response, rational and compassionate Islamists counseled wisdom and understanding, pleading with Muslim public opinion in Europe and beyond to appreciate and accept the centrality of freedom of expression in Europe. Tariq Ramadan an Islamist who lives in Europe was such a voice.

Writing in Asharq Al-Awsat, Ramadan cautioned Muslims against emotional outbursts, and explained that while there are no limits on freedom of expression, there are nonetheless ‘civil limits’ or ‘civil responsibilities’. He reminded the Europeans that the social structures in the continent have changed because of the patterns of immigration and therefore Europeans should be more sensitive towards the Muslims in their midst.

And he agreed with European criticism of Arab double standards when it comes to depictions of anti-Jewish images, while at the same time saying that hypocrisy in the Arab world should not be used as an excuse to insult Muslims in the West.

While major Arab publications and satellite stations did not publish the cartoons, a number of small publications in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria did dare to publish some of the cartoons. The editors of three Yemeni publications, two Algerian weeklies, and two Jordanian weeklies were arrested and charged with criminal counts of blasphemy and inciting violence.

Indeed, amid the cacophony of incendiary voices, there were commentators who tempered their dismay over the cartoons with thoughtful critiques of the violent reactions in some Arab and Muslim capitals, and who focused on the political hypocrisy and expediency of regimes such Iran and Syria. Some commentators accused the regimes in Egypt, Syria and Libya of encouraging the ‘mobs’ in the streets to refurbish their Islamic credentials.

A number of columnists in Asharq Alawsat produced scathing articles, as did one Kuwaiti writer, about ‘the forces of extremism and lunacy’ in the Arab world trying to achieve their “parochial hateful agendas”.

Saleh Al-Qallab, a Jordanian columnist for Asharq Alawsat, said Arabs and Muslims had lost the last round and helped distort the image of Islam, because the violence which had a sectarian tinge in Lebanon and Iraq worked to the benefit of peddlers of a ‘clash of civilization’ with the West theory as preached by Osama Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri.

Similarly, some Arab journalists on television talk shows spoke positively about the responsible way the American media dealt with the issue, as compared with the European media.

The Arab-Muslim reaction exposed the extent of alienation, weakness and vulnerability that many Muslims see at the core of their relations with the West. And the pent up anger went far beyond the offensive cartoons.

For many the controversy became one of raw power struggle; who has the right to frame such issues? Who controls the means to transform those large swaths of the Arab-Muslim world that are watching with fright the caravan of the modern world leaving them behind?

The U.S. news media did better this time because it had learned to listen more carefully to what the Muslim world is saying.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, had published a number of stories last year about Muslims in Europe. “So when this (the cartoon controversy) came up, it was part of our awareness,” says Marjorie Miller, foreign editor for the L.A. Times.

In fact, the cartoon controversy came up in a Nov. 12 story by Jeffrey Fleishman from Copenhagen. But it was only one of several points in a story describing tensions about Muslim migration “ratting” Denmark’s “aura of serenity.”

Most of the U.S. news media that provide the on-the-ground coverage of the Arab world have also upped their presence in the region. Five years ago the New York Times had one Arab world correspondent, as Ethan Bronner, the Times’ deputy foreign editor explains. Today, it has one in Cairo, another in Dubai and four in Baghdad.

But newspapers’ dedication to reporting the ongoing travail in Iraq comes at a cost to coverage elsewhere in the Arab world, says Miller of the L.A.Times. Though the L.A. Times has four correspondents in the region, only one covers the rest of the Arab world, she says.

To gain a better handle on the Middle East, the U.S. news media has clearly begun to lean more heavily on Arabic speakers and reporters familiar with the culture. For its chronology of the cartoon controversy, the Washington Post relied on Shadid. One of few Arab-American reporters covering the Middle East, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his reporting in Iraq before and after the invasion.

When the Post decided it needed an explainer, Shadid wasn’t on assignment, recalls Andy Mosher, a deputy foreign editor for the Middle East. But Shadid volunteered to report as well as help pull the story together. It was a story, as Mosher says, that played to Shadid’s strengths.

The Post’s decision to put together a broad scenario was partially triggered by a February 9th New York Times story written by Hassan M. Fattah with reporting from Times correspondents and stringers. Like a Feb. 7th Wall Street Journal story by Andrew Higgins, it looked at that the connections Danish Muslims had made with Muslim world leaders which had catapulted their campaign. Fattah is an Iraqi born journalist raised in the U.S. who briefly edited an English language newspaper in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s fall.

But knowing the language isn’t always the key to good coverage, and several U.S. reporters weighed in with pieces that brought more depth to the story. They wrote about Muslim moderates dismay over the violence and they pointed to the questionable role of the Syrian government in the riots over the cartoons in Lebanon and Syria.

Michael Slackman, a former Middle East correspondent for the L.A. Times, who is based in Cairo for the New York Times, parlayed his experience and intuition in a Feb. 12 article to explain the forces beneath the rage over the controversy as well to the tragic sinking of an Egyptian ferry.

Rather than a clash between civilizations, Slackman suggested that some of the passion behind the controversy may have come from Arabs’ need to “blow off steam” from living in dysfunctional societies, and from Arab governments’ need to embrace such an issue in order to dampen the rising strength of Islamic groups.

For years the U.S. coverage of the Arab and Muslims worlds rarely poked below the surface. Arabs were strange, incomprehensible bad guys, says Rhonda Zaharna, a professor of public communications at American University in Washington, D.C. The impact of returning mujahadeen or holy fighters who fought in Afghanistan went untold.

But that’s then.

The U.S. news media has shown it do can a better job in covering the politics and nuances of the Arab and Muslim worlds, though it has a way to go. Emerging from years of repression and self-censorship, the Arab news media is first finding it voice.

Yet that’s not good enough and we can’t wait decades for them to do better. The price for Arab world and U.S. journalists not doing the reporting that needs to be done is too unbearable to consider. We have only our dead from all of the tragedies that we have suffered lately to remind us of this.


Hisham Melhem is the Washington-bureau chief for the Al-Arabiya satellite station. Stephen Franklin is a former Chicago Tribune reporter with a long history of reporting in the Middle East. This article was written in early 2006.


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